Ecuador have been looking to go bold with their national team coach and this time around they have done just that.
Eighteen months ago they re-hired veteran Colombian Hernan Dario Gomez, who had taken them to their World Cup debut in 2002, but it was roundly criticised as a backward step -- a view which gained weight when the team played a dismal 2019 Copa America. Gomez was sacked and Ecuador's FA vowed not to make the same mistake twice. Now they wanted to be modern.
They spent a few months last year in a fruitless chase for former U.S. manager Jurgen Klinsmann. They did not get their man that time, but they have now come up with a famous European name to coach their team -- or at least, as cynics might say, a famous surname. Ecuador's new coach, presented in a glitzy ceremony on Monday night, is Jordi Cruyff.
European coaches are in vogue in South America at the moment. They won both continental titles last year: The Copa Sudamericana went to Ecuador's Independiente del Valle, coached by Spain's Miguel Angel Ramirez; the big prize, the Copa Libertadores, was claimed by Flamengo, under the command of the Portuguese Jorge Jesus.
There is some logic in this. In recent times, the South American club game has fallen well behind that of Europe and not only in the obvious field of finances. There has also been a crisis of ideas. Where top European clubs play in a compact manner, with the sectors of the team close together, many South American sides are very spaced out. Indeed, it is here that Jesus made his biggest impact with Flamengo, introducing the compact, pro-active swagger of a European club to a South American context.
But this does not mean that Cruyff will have an easy ride. Far from it. The level of national team football in South America is much higher than that of the club game. And there are key differences between his situation and that of Jesus or Ramirez.
Jesus is a veteran, a man in his 60s with a long and impressive resume in charge of big Portuguese clubs such as Benfica and Sporting; Cruyff has very little experience. Once his playing days were over he established himself as a sporting director, before brief spell in charge of Maccabi Tel Aviv in Israel and Chongqing Lifan in China. He is a coaching novice. True, so is Ramirez. But Independiente del Valle are a tiny club whose overall focus is on youth development. The pressure is off. This will not be the case with Cruyff.
Ecuador qualified for the World Cup in 2002 and made the second round in 2006; they missed out on 2010, but were back four years later. Frontrunners in the race to 2018, they fell apart and failed to make it to Russia. But they have seen enough of the World Cup to regard it as their natural home -- and the fans turned viciously on Gustavo Quinteros, an excellent coach, when things went wrong on his watch in 2017.
Cruyff, then, will be expected to produce. All of the business speak of the presentation ceremony, with the launch of a new logo for the FA, will count for little if it is not sustained by results on the field -- and quickly. The CONMEBOL World Cup qualifiers -- the most competitive on the planet -- get underway on March 26, when Ecuador travel to meet Argentina.
That is difficult enough, but the home matches will also present a challenge. Ecuador play at Quito, 2,800 metres above sea level. There is no doubt that the altitude has served as a considerable advantage -- most of their points have come at home -- but what does Cruyff know of the specifics of these conditions? He will need a crash course in getting to know his players, opponents, and the best way to use the altitude of Quito to his advantage.
The talk from the Ecuadorian FA sounds impressive. They speak of leaving the comfort zone, of learning from the best, of not depending on the luck of the spontaneous appearance of a golden generation, of having a world-class coaching staff capable of developing world-class players, of implanting a solid methodology of play. In short, they are hoping to launch a process -- and all of this will fall on the shoulders of Cruyff.
Will he cope? It is a fascinating question. It is harsh observation but a true one: He would surely have not been handed the position if his surname was different. For all his own achievements as a footballer, Jordi does not have the CV of his father and if this project is to work, he will have to hit the ground running.